During the history of country music, especially back in the 1960s and 1970s many country performers devoted entire albums to gospel, religious music. It became common practice. Among those that come readily to mind you have Johnny Cash, Connie Smith, Red Foley, Dolly Parton, The Louvin Brothers, The Statler Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Marty Robbins, Vern Gosdin, Wanda Jackson etc and here we have Merle Haggard with not only his then wife, Bonnie Owens lend vocal support but The Carter Family (Maybelle, Helen and Anita; with June, Johnny Cash’s wife not at the meetings I presume she was otherwise engaged) too. Plus of course there is his band, The Strangers (Biff Adam, Norm Hamlet, Dennis Hromek, Roy Nichols and Bobby Wayne) plus guest musicians Earl Ball Jr, Tommy Collins, Johnny Gimble, Billy Liebert, Jody Payne, Jerry Smith). Unlike most gospel albums Merle recorded his gospel album not only in church but it also includes part of the service. Though not everyone will feel the need to hear the brief sermons that are sparingly featured ever time they play the album the performances by Merle and company have numerous gems awaiting your approval.
Among the highlights there are such treasures as, Bonnie Owens aided by the Carter Family sing lead on the uplifting ‘Turn Your Radio On’ plus Merle doused in fiddle give a sensitive version of the likes of ‘If We Never meet Again’ and when the recordings are from San Quentin’s Garden Chapel ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘The Rugged Cross’ (w/the congregation) plus you have the SQGC choir perform the stirring medley containing ‘Old Time Religion’ (that sandwich Owens’ singing of ‘Where Could I Go’.
On moving to the Nashville Union Rescue Mission Merle and the Carter Family ease through the classic ‘Life’s Railway To Heaven’ and a jaunty ‘Jericho Road’ plus the sombre, part monologue ‘Steal Away’. That Haggard handles superbly. This is before closing the third part of the release with a nicely spoken introduction and fine version of Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw The Light’. As for the remainder, Merle is in top form as in uplifting fashion he breezes through ‘I’ll Be List’ning’, Willie Nelson’s ‘Family Bible’ and with help from the congregation ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’. That has Haggard and the Strangers close the singing on the album. One for the Merle Haggard die-hard, followers of The Carter Family and country gospel music.
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